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4 Dec 2006 : Column 21


3.30 pm

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall make a statement about the Government’s decision to maintain the United Kingdom’s independent nuclear deterrent.

There are many complex technical, financial and military issues to be debated in respect of this decision, but none of them obscures or alters the fundamental political judgment at the crux of it. Britain has had an independent nuclear deterrent for the past half century. In that time, the world has changed dramatically, not least in the collapse of the Soviet Union—the original context in which the deterrent was acquired. Given that that change has occurred, the question is whether it is wise to maintain the deterrent in the very different times of today. The whole point about the deterrent is not to create the circumstances in which it can be used but, on the contrary, to try to create circumstances in which it is never used. Necessarily, therefore, any analysis of what role it could play in any situation that is hypothetical will always be open to the most strenuous dispute.

Ultimately, this decision is a judgment—a judgment about possible risks to our country and its security, and the place of the deterrent in thwarting those risks. The Government’s judgment on balance is that, although the cold war is over, we cannot be certain in the decades ahead that a major nuclear threat to our strategic interests will not emerge; that there is also a new and potentially hazardous threat from states such as North Korea, which claims to have developed nuclear weapons already, or Iran, which is in breach of its non-proliferation duties; that there is a possible connection between some of those states and international terrorism; that it is noteworthy that no present nuclear power is, or is even considering, divesting itself of its nuclear capability unilaterally; and that in those circumstances it would be unwise and dangerous for Britain, alone of the nuclear powers, to give up its independent nuclear deterrent.

The House will notice that I do not say that the opposite decision is unthinkable, or that anyone who proposes it is pacifist or indifferent to our country’s defence. There are perfectly respectable arguments against the judgment that we have made. I both understand them and appreciate their force. It is just that, in the final analysis, the risk of giving up something that has been one of the mainstays of our security since the war, and, moreover, doing so when the one certain thing about our world today is its uncertainty, is not a risk I feel we can responsibly take. Our independent nuclear deterrent is the ultimate insurance. It may be—indeed, hopefully, is—the case that the eventuality against which we are insuring ourselves will never come to pass, but in this era of unpredictable but rapid change, when every decade has a magnitude of difference with the last, and when the consequences of a misjudgment on this issue are potentially catastrophic, would we want to drop this insurance, not as part of a global move to do so, but on our own? I think not.

What will happen from today, however, will be a very full process of debate. It is our intention, at the
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conclusion of that process in March next year, to have a vote in the House. We will make arrangements during the process to answer as fully as possible any of the questions that arise. Of course, I am sure the Select Committee on Defence, at least, will want to examine the issue carefully. The White Paper, which we publish today, goes into not merely the reasons for the decision but a technical explanation of the various options, and it tries to cover in some detail all potential lines of dispute or inquiry. I hope, therefore, that we can focus on the decision itself, not the process. Let me now turn to some of the key questions.

First, the reason why this decision comes to us now is that if in 2007 we do not take the initial steps toward maintaining our deterrent, shortage of time may prevent us from being able to do so. Necessarily, we can form that view based only on estimates, but they are from the evidence given to us by our own experts, by the industry that would build the new submarines, and from the experience of other nuclear states.

Our deterrent is based on four submarines. At any one time, one will be in dock undergoing extensive repair and maintenance, usually for around four years. The other three will be at sea or in port for short periods. At all times at least one will be on deterrent patrol, fully armed. The submarines are equipped with Trident D5 missiles that are US manufactured but maintained with our close technical and scientific collaboration. The operation of the system is fully independent—a missile can be fired only on the instructions of the British Prime Minister.

The current Vanguard submarines have a service life of 25 years. The first boat should leave service in 2017. We can extend that for five years, so in 2022 that extension will be concluded, and in 2024 the second boat will also end its extended service life. By that time, we will have only two Vanguard submarines. That will be insufficient to guarantee continuous patrolling.

The best evidence we have is that it will take us 17 years to design, build and deploy a new submarine. Working back from 2024, therefore, that means that we have to take the decision in 2007. Of course, all these timelines are estimates, but they conform to the experience of other countries with submarine deterrents, as well as to our own.

Secondly, we have looked carefully at the scope of different options. The White Paper sets them out—for example, aircraft with cruise missiles, but cruise missiles travel at subsonic speeds, and building the special aircraft would be hugely expensive; or a surface ship equipped with Trident, but that is a far easier target; or a land-based system with Trident, but in a small country such as the United Kingdom that would be immensely problematic and, again, an easier target. There is no real doubt on this score: if we want an independent nuclear deterrent, for a nation such as the UK a submarine-based one is the best. It is also our only deterrent; in the 1990s we moved to Trident as our sole nuclear capability.

Of the other major nuclear powers, the US has submarine, air and land-based capability. Russia has all three capabilities and has the largest number of nuclear weapons. France has both submarine and air-launched capability and has a new class of submarines in development, the last of which is due to come into service in 2010. China has a smaller number of
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land-based strategic nuclear weapons but is working on modernising its capability, including a submarine-based nuclear ballistic missile.

We will continue to procure some elements of the system, particularly those relating to the missile, from the United States, but, as now, we will maintain full operational independence. The submarines, missiles, warheads and command chain are entirely under British control, and will remain so after 2024. That gives British Prime Ministers the necessary assurance that no aggressor can escalate a crisis beyond UK control.

A new generation of submarines will make maximum use of existing infrastructure and technology. The overall design and manufacture costs of some £15 billion to £20 billion are spread over three decades, are on average 3 per cent. of the defence budget, and are at their highest in the early 2020s. As before, we will ensure that the investment required will not be at the expense of the conventional capabilities that our armed forces need. It is our intention that the procurement and building will, as now, be done by British industry, with thousands of British, highly skilled jobs involved.

However, we will investigate whether, with a new design, we can maintain continuous patrol with a fleet of only three submarines. A decision on that will be made once we know more about the submarines’ detailed design. No decisions are needed now on the warhead. We can extend the life of the D5 Trident missile to 2042. After that, there will be the opportunity for us to participate in any new missile design in collaboration with the US, which will be confirmed in an exchange of letters between myself and the President of the United States.

Maintaining our nuclear deterrent capability is also fully consistent with all our international obligations. We have the smallest stockpile of nuclear warheads among the recognised nuclear weapons states, and we are the only one to have reduced to a single deterrent system. Furthermore, we have decided, on expert advice, that we can reduce our stockpile of operationally available warheads to no more than 160, which represents a further 20 per cent. reduction. Compared with previous plans, we will have reduced the number of such weapons by nearly half.

So, inexorably, we return to the central judgment: maintain our independent nuclear deterrent, or not? It is written as a fact by many that there is no possibility of nuclear confrontation with any major nuclear power—except that it is not a fact. Like everything else germane to this judgment, it is a prediction. It is probably right—but certain? No, we cannot say that.

The new dimension is undoubtedly the desire by states, highly dubious in their intentions, like North Korea and Iran, to pursue nuclear weapons capability. Fortunately, Libya has given up its weapons of mass destruction ambitions and has played a positive role internationally; the notorious network of A. Q. Khan, the former Pakistani nuclear physicist, has been shut down. But proliferation remains a real problem. The notion of unstable, usually deeply repressive and anti-democratic states, in some cases profoundly
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inimical to our way of life, having a nuclear capability, is a distinct and novel reason for Britain not to give up its capacity to deter.

It is not utterly fanciful, either, to imagine states sponsoring nuclear terrorism from their soil. We know that this global terrorism seeks chemical, biological and nuclear devices. It is not impossible to contemplate a rogue Government helping such an acquisition. It is true that our deterrent would not deter or prevent terrorists, but it is bound to have an impact on Governments who might sponsor them.

Then there is the argument, attractive to all of us who believe in the power of countries to lead by example, as we seek to do in climate change and have done in respect of debt relief, that Britain giving up its deterrent would encourage others in the same direction. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that any major nuclear power would follow such an example—on the contrary. As for the new, would-be nuclear powers, it really would be naive to think that they would be influenced by a purely British decision—more likely, they would construe it as weakness.

Finally, there is one other argument: that we shelter under the nuclear deterrent of America. Our co-operation with America is rightly very close, but close as it is, the independent nature of the British deterrent is again an additional insurance against circumstances where we are threatened but America is not. Those circumstances are, I agree, also highly unlikely, but I am unwilling to say that they are non-existent.

In the end, therefore, we come back to the same judgment. Anyone can say that the prospect of Britain facing a threat in which our nuclear deterrent is relevant is highly improbable; no one, however, can say that it is impossible. In the early 21st century, the world may have changed beyond recognition since the decision taken by the Attlee Government more than half a century ago. But it is precisely because we could not have recognised then the world we live in now that it would not be wise, now, to predict the unpredictable in the times to come. That is the judgment that we have come to. We have done so according to what we think is in the long-term strategic interests of our nation and its security. I commend that judgment to the House.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney) (Con): Let me say straight away that I agree with the Prime Minister both about the substance of this decision and about the timing. It is a vital matter for our national security, and it requires a long-term approach. I hope that we can work together on this issue for the good of our country. Conservative Members have always believed that Britain should have an independent nuclear deterrent, and it is good to see that this is now so firmly part of a national political consensus.

When it comes to our nuclear deterrent, there are some straightforward questions to answer. Should it be replaced? Do we need a submarine-based system? Does the decision need to be taken now? Our approach to all those questions is to answer yes.

We believe that the case for maintaining our deterrent and therefore ordering a replacement is powerful. Those who argue that the world has changed so that no deterrent is required miss the point. Yes, the world has changed, and it continues to change rapidly,
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but that is the very case for keeping up our guard. Just as today’s threat is so different from that predicted 20 years ago, today we cannot predict the threat that we will face in 20 years’ time. Still less can we predict the threat in 40 to 50 years’ time, when the next generation of submarines will still be in service.

Some argue that because the major threat is now rogue states, a submarine-based alternative is not necessary. However, is not it the case that the replacement for Trident will cover the period 2025 to 2055, when the nature of threat is so unpredictable? It may be rogue states or major powers. We should have a credible deterrent to both. Does the Prime Minister agree that the key issue in deterrence is credibility, and that the key to a credible system is that it is not vulnerable to pre-emptive attack? Do not all the experts agree that, of the three options of land, air or submarine-based systems, the submarine-based system is the least vulnerable by far?

On the issue of timing, is not the key starting the design and procurement process so that the new submarines are available when the old ones go out of service? Would not a further life-extension programme be costly and uncertain and potentially leave a gap?

Let me ask about four specific matters. Will the Prime Minister confirm that it would not be right to rule out a fourth submarine? For example, the French deterrent requires four submarines. The Prime Minister said that the decision would be made when we know more about the detailed design. Will he confirm that the decision about the fourth submarine does not have to be taken until possibly as late as 2020?

Secondly, some have raised questions of disarmament and legality. Does the Prime Minister agree that replacing Trident with a submarine-based system does not hinder our efforts to achieve multilateral nuclear disarmament? Britain is not part of a nuclear arms race. Trident is our only nuclear weapon; it is a minimum deterrent and we have the right to replace it. On legality, will the Prime Minister confirm that maintaining such a deterrent is compatible with the provisions of the non-proliferation treaty?

Thirdly, there is the issue of cost. The White Paper gives a commitment that the cost will not come at the expense of the conventional capabilities of our armed forces. What does that mean for the defence budget that the Prime Minister is currently planning?

Fourthly and lastly, there is the issue of warheads. Previous Conservative Governments significantly reduced the number of warheads. The incoming Labour Government reduced them still further. Now the Prime Minister proposes yet another reduction. Is he content that the new total is sufficient to maintain a credible minimum deterrent? On that issue as others, does he acknowledge that he does not have to make concessions to those in the House who do not support the theory of deterrence and who have never supported Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent? Is not it the case that the Prime Minister can make the right decisions because he knows that, if he does, he will have our full support?

The Prime Minister: First, let me thank the right hon. Gentleman for his support for our decision. I essentially agree with the points that he made at the
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outset. In particular, I think that it is important to emphasise that the only credible deterrent is one that is not susceptible to pre-emptive attack—that is why the submarine-based system is so much better. On the design and procurement process, it is important that we get it under way now.

We certainly do not rule out four submarines. Indeed, it is the other way round—we would keep four unless it became feasible to move to three. If it is feasible to move to three, we can do that, but it depends on a series of discussions that will take place in the years to come about design and so on. The decision does not need to be made until much later.

It is clear in article VI of the non-proliferation treaty that we can maintain our independent nuclear deterrent. We are under an obligation, which we are fulfilling, to pursue multilateral negotiations, but there is no obligation on us to disarm unilaterally.

On the defence budget, all I can point to is the fact that over the past few years, after many years in which there were real-terms cuts in the defence budget, there have been real-terms increases. It is important that we give our armed forces the equipment and the defence spending that they require.

On the warheads, it is of course the case that it is only on the advice that retaining no more than 160 is consistent with maintaining a credible deterrent that we could take such a decision, and that is the advice that we have received.

Sir Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife) (LD): As the Prime Minister and the White Paper both make clear, a decision to replace Trident is a significant decision, with enormous financial, political and security implications. To be properly made, that decision must take account of the strategic environment or threat assessment, of cost and of our treaty obligations. The Prime Minister says that the decision is a matter of judgment, and he is right; but it is my judgment that we can give proper consideration to all those factors only by postponing a decision, perhaps until 2014, by cutting the number of warheads by half to 100, and by extending the life of the existing submarines. There are many estimates available other than those contained— [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. The House should let the right hon. and learned Gentleman speak.

Sir Menzies Campbell: I remember the 1983 general election, when a large number of those people on the Labour Benches were arguing that there should be unilateral nuclear disarmament, that Britain should withdraw from NATO and that we should come out of the European Union. That just shows that if one waits long enough, one sees everything. The question in people’s minds is why is this decision being pushed through the Cabinet and Parliament just as the Prime Minister is about to leave Downing street. Is the decision about Britain’s interests or about his legacy?

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